Kanaky New Caledonia unrest: Pro-independence militant leaders arrested

French police crackdown in Nouméa
French police crackdown in Nouméa . . . The whole area of the Magenta district was cordoned off yesterday. Image: RRB/RNZ Pacific

By Patrick Decloitre, RNZ Pacific correspondent French Pacific desk

New Caledonia’s security forces have arrested eight people believed to be involved in the organisation of pro-independence-related riots that broke out in the French Pacific territory last month.

The eight include leaders of the so-called Field Action Coordinating Cell (CCAT), a group that was set up by the Union Calédonienne (UC), one of the more radical and largest party making up the FLNKS (Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front) platform.

The large-scale dawn operation yesterday, mainly conducted by gendarmes at CCAT’s headquarters in downtown Nouméa’s Magenta district, as well as suburban Mont-Dore, is said to be part of a judicial preliminary inquiry into the events of May 13 involving the French anti-terrorist division.

The whole area had been cordoned off for the duration of the operation.

Public Prosecutor Yves Dupas said in a media release this inquiry had been launched on May 17.

“It includes potential charges of conspiracy in order to prepare the commission of a crime; organised destruction of goods and property by arson; complicity by way of incitement of crimes and murders or murder attempts on officers entrusted with public authority; and participation in a grouping formed with the aim of preparing acts of violence on persons and property.”

Dupas said that because some of the charges included organised crime, the arrested individuals could be kept in custody for up to 96 hours.

Téin among 8 arrested
CCAT leader Christian Téin was one of the eight arrested leaders.

Dupas said the arrested men had been notified of their fundamental rights, including the right to be assisted by a lawyer, the right to undergo a medical examination, and the right to remain silent during subsequent interviews.

CCAT leader Christian Tein is one of the eight arrested on Wednesday – Photo NC la 1ère
CCAT leader Christian Tein . . . one of the eight Kanak pro-independence leaders arrested yesterday. Image: NC la 1ère TV screenshot/RNZ

“Investigators and the public prosecution intend to conduct this phase of the inquiry with all the necessary objectivity and impartiality — with the essential objective being seeking truth,” Dupas said.

Dupas pointed out other similar operations were also carried out on Wednesday, including at the headquarters of USTKE union, one of the major components of CCAT.

The arrests come five weeks after pro-independence protests — against a proposed change to the rules of eligibility of voters at local elections — degenerated into violence, looting and arson.

Current estimates are that more than 600 businesses, and about 200 private residences were destroyed, causing more than 7000 employees to lose their jobs for a total cost of more than 1 billion euros (NZ$1.8 billion).

Nine people have been killed during the unrest, mostly Kanaks.

The unrest is believed to be the worst since a quasi civil war erupted in New Caledonia during the second half of the 1980s.

‘Stay calm’ call by the UC
Pro-independence party Union Calédonienne swiftly reacted to the arrests on Wednesday by calling on “all of CCAT’s relays and our young people to stay calm and not to respond to provocation, whether on the ground or on social networks”.

UC, in a media release, said it “denounces” the “abusive arrests” of the CCAT leaders.

“The French State is persisting in its intimidation manoeuvres. Those arrests were predictable,” UC said, and also demanded “immediate explanations”.

UC president Daniel Goa is also calling on the removal of the French representative in New Caledonia, High Commissioner Louis Le Franc.

The Pro-France Loyalistes party leader and New Caledonia’s Southern province President, Sonia Backès, also reacted, but praised the arrests, saying “about time” on social networks.

Another pro-France politician from the same party, Nicolas Metzdorf, recalled that those arrests were needed before “a resumption of talks regarding the future of New Caledonia”.

“But all is not settled; the restoration of law and order, even though it now seems feasible, must continue to intensify.”

At the weekend, a Congress of the FLNKS was postponed, due to persisting differences between the pro-independence umbrella’s components, and the fact that UC had brought several hundred CCAT members to the conference, which local organisers and moderate FLNKS parties perceived as a “security risk”.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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